Dear Civilities: I have a lesbian daughter who has just come out as a transgender man. I will be introducing him as my child in our city’s pride celebration later this summer. How exactly should I do that? Do I say: “This is my transgender son?” or “This is my transgender daughter?” I’m sorry if I sound confused, but I want to make the correct introduction to my friends that also have gay children. — Name withheld
Even before Time magazine put transgender activist and “Orange Is the New Black” actress Laverne Cox on its cover last month, my inbox was seeing a sharp uptick in transgender-related questions. No doubt there’s greater visibility than ever before for trans people, and the questions reflect some anxiety kicked up by these new situations. As I noted in a recent blog post, part of the challenge is that only 8 percent of Americans believe they know a transgender individual, according to a Pew Research survey.
I asked Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, for some context, and she said, “Many Americans are understandably unfamiliar with transgender people — in part because a lot of what people know about us comes from misrepresentations on television.”
Keisling added, “Bias and violence is still a pervasive problem, making it very dangerous for transgender people to tell others who they are.” She also told me that in the past few weeks alone, she had learned about the bias-motivated murders of four transgender women of color. I remember a more general sort of nastiness after Cher presented her son Chaz Bono a GLAAD award in 2012. One online commenter wrote: “She’s a perverted mom praising her perverted child !!! That is about as sick as it gets.”
Now, to your question. On one level, the simplest answer is this: Ask your child directly. But I understand why you might not want to, thinking, “Gee, I should know this.” The rule of thumb is to default to the way people describe their own gender identity. For instance, Laverne Cox identifies as a woman; so too does trans author Janet Mock. That’s why it’s respectful to refer to them as “she” and “her.” Chaz Bono identifies as a man, and that’s why Cher calls him her son. (Some people eschew this male-female binary, describing themselves as somewhere in between, but that’s a subject for another column.)
I will say that when you find out how someone prefers to be described, there’s no need to ask any other questions — about hormones or surgery, for instance — as those are private topics and, in fact, don’t necessarily correlate with someone’s gender identity. You and your son may, of course, discuss these important matters — if he’s open to such a conversation.
Now, do people make gaffes when it comes to pronouns? Yes, they do. When Cher was presenting Chaz his award, she started off by saying, “I’m so nervous because my pronouns for my child just jump all over the . . . place.” And then she proceeded to intersperse some “she’s” along with the “he’s.” Is that the end of the world? A feminist activist I know considers “incorrect language,” such as using the wrong pronoun, a “hate crime.” I don’t agree. Certainly, I oppose intentional cruelty, even if it’s verbal. But Cher, like many parents, has openly struggled with Chaz’s transition and in the end is a great example of what the process of acceptance looks like.
All that being said, because your question is specifically about a Pride event, I do think your son’s transition is worth mentioning in your introduction (if he is okay with that). I’d say something like, for example: “When our child was born, we named her Isabel, and she taught us as she grew up about love and support. When she transitioned to Isaac, we learned about gender identity, and we could not be prouder to introduce you to our son Isaac.”
In more ordinary social situations, however, I recommend referring to your son simply as your son. Period. His past and his journey have no bearing in day-to-day introductions.
Finally, let me comment briefly on your description of your child as “lesbian” and, then at the end of your question as “gay.” Keep in mind that he may no longer consider himself homosexual. Sexual orientation (being gay, straight or bisexual) is different from gender identity (one’s inner sense of being male or female or somewhere else along the continuum). I know this may be confusing at first, but it’s important that supportive parents such as you not only walk the walk, but also talk the talk — accurately. This is what acceptance looks like in real time.
Update: Last month I answered a question from a lesbian bride-to-be who wrote that she didn’t want to invite her parents to her upcoming wedding because she felt they didn’t support the marriage. Many of you had lots to say, including this young man in a similar situation who forwarded me a copy of the e-mail he recently sent to his family outlining his expectations of them. Appropriate? Harsh? Let me know what you think in the comment section below:
“As some of you may or may not know (I’ve lost track), “William” & I have been dating for a little over 3 years. He moved to Providence a few months ago, and I’m writing to let you know that we are now engaged! I realize that some/many/most/all of you may not receive this news with joy. If that is the case, please express your feelings to someone other than me.
We don’t yet have any details about the wedding, but at this point it seems likely that it will be in San Diego. If you would like to be invited, let me know and we can talk about it. We want our guests to be those who are truly celebrating the occasion, and who have either supported us all along, or who pledge to do so from now on.
The congregation will also be asked to affirm the following two questions: ‘Will all of you here gathered uphold and honor this couple and respect the covenant they make?’ ‘Will you pray for them in times of trouble and celebrate with them in times of joy?’ To our mind, neither of those questions requires a moral endorsement of our relationship, but affirming those questions does have important implications for the way that our relationship is treated.”
Every other week, Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities.
E-mail questions to him at firstname.lastname@example.org (unfortunately not all questions can be answered). You can reach him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter: @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on July 15.